DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Winners (and 2012 Nominees) Audra McDonald and Judy Kaye

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Winners (and 2012 Nominees) Audra McDonald and Judy Kaye
 
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Audra McDonald
Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald may add a fifth award to her mantel June 10 for her breathtaking performance in the current Broadway revival of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. The acclaimed singing actress, in fact, has already won Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and Drama Desk awards for her work as the ill-fated Bess.

Although the gifted artist has already nabbed Broadway's highest honor for her standout performances in Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime and A Raisin in the Sun, McDonald told me the morning Tony nominations were announced, "This show means so much to me and just the journey that we've all taken. I'm honored and thrilled and humbled that I was nominated, but I'm so proud of the show and that the Nominating Committee decided to recognize so many facets of this show. I'm just so proud of that. It's a very cohesive, very close family, and the fact that so many of them were recognized today just filled my heart with pride and joy and gratitude. I'm so happy for them. I'm so happy for Phillip [Boykin] and David [Alan Grier] and Norm [Lewis], especially. I'm just thrilled for everybody!"

McDonald's joy, however, was not confined to her own show's artists. "[I'm happy for] all the people in all the categories for God sake!" she exclaimed. "I have buddies everywhere! Steve Kazee, I'm so, so happy for him. I'm beside myself for Steve, [the Once star who shared a stage with McDonald in the Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade]."

Bess, the role created on Broadway in 1935 by Anne Brown, is one McDonald knew she would eventually play. "I always thought, somewhere in the back of my mind, that there was a collision course. And, with this role, I just didn't know how and where it would happen," McDonald explained. "I knew it was normally done in opera houses, and I'm not usually what people think of when they think operatically. I'm just not usually what opera houses go for. So I just wondered if it were to happen, how it would happen. So when it all started to come together, and I got approached by [director] Diane [Paulus] and [producer] Jeffrey [Richards] and [co-adapter] Suzan-Lori Parks—they'd been working on this adaptation I think two years by the time they contacted me — I thought, 'Oh, wow. This is how it's going to happen. This is great, and this is exciting… A chance to come home,' so I was thrilled."

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

McDonald, whose duet with co-star Lewis on the Gershwin classic "I Loves You, Porgy" is one of the season's most memorable moments, said the biggest challenge of the role is stepping onto the Richard Rodgers Theatre stage each night. "The first step onto the stage [is a challenge] because it's such a painful journey. It's a very painful journey that Bess takes, so knowing that you're about to go through all that, when you take the first step on stage, it's daunting. I usually try to think about something else or sometimes I'll read a passage from the book before I go on stage, but then maybe five-ten minutes before I go on stage, I'll play Plants vs. Zombies or something like that on my iPad to get my mind off of what's about to happen because it's daunting!"

Despite the difficulty of the role, there are moments that McDonald relishes. "The entire show is glorious and beautiful, but for me, my favorite part—maybe it's because it's where I have to do the least—is where the ladies are praying over me. They sing that beautiful 'Doctor Jesus' as they're praying over me, and then they lay me down on the bed. Then the section with the street vendors starts with the Strawberry Lady singing and the Honey Man and the Crab Man. That's Andrea Sojola and Phumzile Sojola and Cedric Neal—just the sound of their voices and that gorgeous music and the fact that I just kind of get to lie down and listen to that moment [is] very restorative for me."

McDonald believes the story of Porgy and Bess still resonates so strongly with audiences because it's a tale of "star-crossed lovers...Under really no circumstances should these two people come together and have their hearts be pulled together in the way that they are," she said. "I think that just speaks to the power of love and its transformative power within this show to actually change people, and Porgy becomes a different person because of Bess, and Bess—for a time—becomes a different person because of Porgy, and the only reason she's not able to hold onto that is because Porgy is taken away from her."

McDonald in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.
photo by Michael J. Lutch

Prior to its Broadway arrival, this revised version of the opera by George & Ira Gershwin and DuBose & Dorothy Heyward raised the hackles of some theatre purists. The fact that the show has been embraced by audiences, critics and Tony nominators is especially meaningful for its cast. "It's total gratitude that we have been embraced," McDonald said. "We all knew in our hearts how much we loved this piece and how much we've all been affected by this piece for years before we all came together with this, and all we ever wanted to do was honor it and interpret it in the way that we have been charged to do.... Knowing that was in our hearts and not, 'Let's screw with Porgy and Bess.'

"We do love this piece, and we love that we're getting a chance to bring it here to Broadway and people are getting a chance to experience it for the first time. Maybe they've seen it a million times before, but just to see this particular version, and it's a testament to the piece, and we know that there will be five million other versions of it for generations and generations to come. There's a reason why it's a classic." [For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com. The Richard Rodgers Theatre is located at 226 West 46th Street.]

Judy Kaye
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Judy Kaye
"Well, I was sleeping away," Judy Kaye, a 2012 Tony nominee for her performance in the new Gershwin musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, told me the morning Tony nominations were announced.

"In the mornings I turn on my television to try to slap myself around a little bit. As happened, CBS was up because I watch 'Letterman' at night, and they just happened to be announcing it. I said, 'Wait a minute. Wait a minute. That's why I didn't sleep so good last night,'" Kaye said with a laugh. "I forgot all about this, and there it was on the tube. Then the phone rang, and it was Michael [Strassheim] from Boneau/Bryan-Brown to tell me, and then I turned on my computer. It's amazing how fast everyone in this day and age knows something. It's rather amazing and a little scary and actually very dear that everyone wants to share their happiness with you, which is really great."

Kaye, like McDonald, seems poised to take home another Tony, having already won Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards for her work as Nice Work's Duchess Estonia Dulworth. The acclaimed singing actress, who won her first Tony for her performance as Carlotta Guidicelli in The Phantom of the Opera, has also been nominated for her roles in Mamma Mia! and Souvenir. Her current nomination is especially appreciated, the actress said, explaining, "I'm not the new, young thing on the block. Did Helen Gallagher say, 'This is very encouraging?' It is encouraging. It means that they're going to keep letting me do what I love to do, which is do plays, do musicals... I'm really, really thrilled and excited to be invited back to the party because it's a great party. The whole thing. The whole month is wacky and wonderful, and I'm really looking forward to it. And, it's fun; it's fun to go!"

Kaye in Nice Work If You Can Get It.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Kaye said the biggest challenge of playing prohibitionist Dulworth was "finding out who the lady was and how she fits into the piece. That's always the challenge, but with a role like this, you're trying to find the humanity in the briefest of roles, really. I've got a lot of music, which is very helpful—great songs—so that was real helpful, and it still is because I'm still finding her. ... I've got a long way to go. I think I will learn a lot about Estonia as we go forward. And, having Michael McGrath, [who plays bootlegger Cookie McGee], there is just amazing because I've always felt like I'm really sort of a vaudevillian, and when he and I are working together, I feel like we are part of that great tradition. I love being a straight man. It's just so much fun."

Kaye also has nothing but praise for the show's director-choreographer, fellow Tony winner and 2012 Tony nominee Kathleen Marshall. "Kathleen is just the best. She is not only theatre-wise and has this amazing, amazing eye, but she is the most generous of people—of human beings—to begin with. And, she takes that with her into her work. You can't help but just want to make her happy. I find that her taste is unerring, and if she doesn't like what she sees on the stage, she just meat-and-potatoes fixes it. That's it. There's no drama. It's all about the work, and it's all fun, you know. I didn't get to work with her until we did the Encores!, where Kelli [O'Hara] and I met, actually, doing Bells Are Ringing. And, now I know why everybody else has had such a good time working with her. I am, too. It's really marvelous."

Kaye takes an opening night bow
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

In Nice Work soprano Kaye gets to put her inimitable spin on such Gershwin tunes as "Demon Rum," "By Strauss" and "Looking for a Boy." Kaye said she has been singing "this Gershwin music, I think, since I was born—most all of it. I even, many years ago, was involved in a wonderful… recording of Gershwin music with Steve Blier and New York Festival of Song. So to get up on a Broadway stage and sing it is beyond a joy. It's such an honor, such a privilege and a pleasure, you know. And, to get hear it! I get to sing it, and I get to listen to other people. And, I get to listen to David Chase's incredible arrangements and Bill Elliot's orchestrations that just make me nuts! We have the best band on Broadway—it just is."

And, what does Kaye make of the fact that, like Phantom of the Opera, a chandelier also plays an important role in Nice Work?

"I hadn't noticed it until somebody else pointed it out to me. I went, 'Oh my God!'," Kaye laughed. [The Imperial is at 249 W. 45th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.com and by calling (212) 239-6200, and in person at the Imperial. Visit niceworkonbroadway.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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